Airport lounges are my fourth home after my residential apartment, Business Class aircraft cabins and five-star hotels given the frequency with which I fly. Singapore Airlines’ Silverkris lounges spoil me on land before the cabin crew indulge me in the air. The physical comforts and the array of refreshments that the lounges offer is enhanced by the gracious multiracialism with which the attendants treat passengers, whatever the colour of their skin. Indeed, I always feel a pang of infantile regret when I leave a Silverkris lounge to board my SIA flight, as if I’d rather stay on and on and on, although the whole point of using a lounge is to leave it to travel on. A businessman when it comes to the mind, I am a romantic at heart.
That romanticism was shredded to terrible bits on a return flight to Singapore recently. I was subjected to an astonishing display of consistently racist, professionally unpardonable and rudely dismissive behaviour at Virgin Atlantic’s lounge at New York’s JFK Airport. SIA shares the unhappy lounge with that much-feted airline. A brown-skinned Asian man at the reception looked at me askance as if I were an intruder, and made me feel that way. Once I had made my shocked way into the lounge, it was my fate to meet an Asian woman attendant who informed me curtly that she was busy and would get back to me. She never did, although I saw her chatting with white males. I found a seat. Next to me was a passenger who was using the f-word on his mother over the phone. Looking around helplessly for some escape from the hellishness around me, I spied a lounge attendant, who I suspect is a Bangladeshi (like they mostly were), who ignored me pointedly. I paid a tip of USD 40 for service.
To cap these poisoned starters, the main course came in the form of the assurance that I would be escorted to my flight close to boarding time (a common practice for travellers like me). The escort never turned up. I made my own way to the aircraft, where the Business Class cabin crew informed me ashamedly that someone had forgotten to do his or her job.
Racism is unpleasant, especially if it is intra-ethnic. It is bad enough to be treated badly because of the difference of skin colour: It is worse to be treated badly because of the similarity of skin colour, the reason for this intramural racism consisting in one person’s jealousy over the fact that an ethnic insider could be much more successful in life than himself or herself. Class is as persistent a syndrome of human existence as is race or is gender.
But I should be grateful for small mercies. I met a dear friend at the airport and invited him to join me at the Virgin Atlantic lounge which awaited me. He declined politely and went his way.
Good for him, and good for me. Imagine my embarrassment had he decided to join me on my tour of the nether regions of JFK airport within which the Virgin Atlantic lounge sits, swarming with swarthy Bangladeshis and other racist Asians waiting for an unwitting traveller from Singapore to pounce on.
Travel wisely. Travel well.